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The US ‘understanding’ with the Taliban — stop fighting for long enough and we’ll leave

Andrew Cuomo

Everyone wanted to announce peace first, but only one group wants to leave.

The beginnings of a long-trailed and horse-traded deal with the Taliban emerged Friday to perhaps get the United States out of its longest war and, as a more remote possibility, end decades of brutal conflict in the land-locked graveyard of empires.

It begins with a seven-day “reduction in violence” across Afghanistan, starting at midnight. If that succeeds, US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad will sign a deal with the Taliban in Doha on February 29.

Then representatives of Afghan society will start talking to the Taliban, possibly in Norway. If that results in an agreement, Afghanistan’s government — and a chosen council of elders — will have to decide whether to endorse it.

It is a long and dirty road ahead, and the last fortnight of back and forth over the torturous talks have betrayed the real risks at the heart of the deal.

First, top US officials trailed last week that a reduction of violence had been proposed. But when would it begin? Sources close to the talks — at the Munich Security Conference — hinted that the announcement of when that would begin had slipped.

Another crisis emerged this week, when long-delayed presidential election results were finally tallied up and incumbent Ashraf Ghani was declared the winner. Those results were disputed — by both Ghani’s opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, and the Taliban.

Before the mess could swallow the nascent peace deal whole, an Afghan security official stepped up this morning and finally announced that the reduction in violence would commence from Saturday. The news had been expected to be broken by the US State Department, but Kabul stole their thunder. The deal was born a bit of a mess, and it may die one too.

In a statement on Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said US negotiators had “come to an understanding with the Taliban,” and that “the only way to achieve a sustainable peace in Afghanistan is for Afghans to come together and agree on the way forward.”

But the first problem will be determining exactly what is included in the reduction of violence. Presumably the attacks against Americans must stop, as one of those derailed the last bid at peace.

A spokesman for Afghanistan’s national security council, Jawed Faisal, told CNN that operations against ISIS militants in the country would continue as normal, and that the Afghan army would defend government buildings, highways, and civilians as before.​

There is scope for chaos here as the deal is implemented. What about al Qaeda, who are now embedded deep within the conventional Taliban insurgency? What if mistakes are made and the wrong insurgents are attacked? What if Afghan forces are attacked, but the perpetrator is unclear?

It is up to the US commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Scott Miller, to assess the success of the reduction. But the efforts the US have made to get to this point suggest they hope the Taliban will silence their guns long enough to let the US announce enough progress to get to the next stage.

The possible signing of a deal on February 29 will be deeply symbolic. First, the US are handing off the baton of peace talks to the Afghans. Do not doubt the potency of that moment. The US cannot stay in Afghanistan forever — even if it seems like it already has. The Trump administration’s long-held desire to end the endless wars will weigh heavily on Afghan officials who know that they cannot depend forever more on US billions and air power to support their doddering constituencies. Compromises may have to be made in these talks.

But there are two huge obstacles to peace in those talks.

First, President Ghani refuses to send officials to partake in direct talks with the Taliban, and instead wants Afghan society represented at them by chosen delegates. Whatever is agreed will then come back to him and a loya jirga, or grand assembly, of elders in Kabul to discuss and endorse. That could very easily fall apart.

Second, silent but domineering in all of this, is the Taliban. They are not cuddly, or united. Decades of violence have left them fragmented and split, sometimes young, criminalized and extremist, other times ageing and unsure of their command structure.

Startlingly, this week their military commander Siraj Haqqani graced the opinion pages of the New York Times to court peace. This is a man specifically proscribed as a terrorist for his associations with al Qaeda. When the Taliban made him their operations head, it was a stark statement that they were effectively co-opting the terror group behind 9/11. Do not mistake the motives of the Taliban the US is dealing with: they are much more likely to pursue a peace deal that reduces America’s presence in the country than to reduce their military gains across it.

They have been winning for years, and the US knows it. The Taliban know they will face a challenge in the years ahead if they attempt total political dominance of the country, as the foreign aid the nation so badly depends on will likely dry up due to sanctions. They may seek the fig leaf of a civilian partner in government. That may be one goal of these talks.

But essentially in the week ahead, the US will be looking to the insurgency to halt the violence and clear a path for the Doha signing to go ahead. And then, perhaps, if the process takes greater hold, it will allow the United States the rationale and dignity with which to finally leave.

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